St. Louis looking to recover rich blues history

St. Louis looking to recover rich blues history
November1, 2009
Betsy Taylor

St. Louis -- There's a widely held belief that blues music was born in the Mississippi Delta, traveled up river to places like Memphis and then north to Chicago.

Not so fast, St. Louis says.

There's a renewed effort in the city to celebrate and preserve its blues heritage, in part by showing the music's evolution to be more complicated than broad histories suggest. A new book, museum show and nonprofit group are making the case that St. Louis brought together a mix of country and city musicians, resulting in significant contributions to the genre.

The St. Louis area certainly has its marquee musical names -- think Scott Joplin, Josephine Baker, Ike and Tina Turner, Chuck Berry, Miles Davis.

But 15 years ago, artist and now-author Kevin Belford decided to do a series of portraits on blues greats with strong ties to St. Louis, performers like Lonnie Johnson, Walter Davis, Roosevelt Sykes and Peetie Wheatstraw. Each man made more than 100 recordings, and the city had dozens of famed female artists, too. Yet information was hard to come by.

"Wait, there's a gap there," Belford realized.

After scouring old record collections and newspaper clippings, scrutinizing past city maps and talking to just about anyone who knew about the local blues, Belford has released "Devil at the Confluence," a book about prewar blues music in the city. It includes a new CD from Delmark Records, a label started by Bob Koester, who opened a record store while attending school in St. Louis in the 1950s and recorded several of the city's jazz and blues artists.

Koester, reached by telephone in Chicago, recalled how he enlisted the help of the late Charlie O'Brien, a St. Louis police officer known for sharp detective skills who tracked down many of the city's older blues musicians for the recordings.

In 1954, pianist Roosevelt Sykes told O'Brien that another piano legend, Henry Brown, was still in the city. O'Brien found him in a two-story tenement, where Brown wasn't too happy to hear an officer was looking for him. Brown was worried about why "a cop wanted him so badly when there were thousands of other number runners in the city," but O'Brien convinced him he only wanted to ask about his blues records.

... and the door creaked open," O'Brien would often say.

St. Louis' blues contributions may have been overlooked, in part, because performers largely traveled to other cities to make records. The St. Louis Blues Society has worked for years to highlight the best of the city's past and current blues, but efforts for a permanent museum never materialized.

A handful of well-known blues clubs and radio shows about the blues remain, "but it's a shame we don't have a natural shrine to the genre," said Paul Reuter, executive director of the Sheldon Arts Foundation. "There's no place to take a picture and say, 'this is where it all began."'

At the Sheldon Art Galleries, a show has opened called "Legends of St. Louis Blues Music," which will run through Aug. 28, 2010. St. Louisans interested in highlighting the city's blues past note it's hard to find blockbuster items to display. Framed records, photos and posters give a sense of the blues, but it's still sound and video clips that provide the best examples of the music's unvarnished power.

The Sheldon will also feature live performances, like a gala featuring blues and jazz singer Kim Massie, in conjunction with the show.

A nonprofit, the St. Louis Rhythm & Blues Preservation Society, is organizing new master classes, pitched as an opportunity for people to learn from blues and rhythm and blues performers, who will tell stories, play music and perhaps teach student musicians.

Early events will be held at the Portfolio Gallery in the city's Grand Center arts district. The hope is to eventually have a permanent music collection and venue space.

One of the first people to be presented is blues harmonica player Big George Brock. At 77, Brock is a natural storyteller, who talks easily about growing up in Mississippi, playing music with Muddy Waters in Brock's mother's backyard during fish fries, working as a sharecropper in cotton fields, becoming a boxer who once beat Sonny Liston and fathering, he claims, 42 children.

He used to play seven nights a week, and he still performs live.

Brock is diabetic, and he doesn't hide the fact that his health is not the best. But dressed from head to toe in a natty brown outfit complete with derby hat, jeweled rings and a sparkly Barack Obama watch, the years appear to slip away as he picks up a harmonica and plays.

"If anybody just sits down and listens to the blues, they'll find the blues ain't nothing but the truth," he said. "I lived the blues; I lived them, and I know exactly how they're supposed to go. I just play about how I've felt," he said.

"There's some of the best blues music in St. Louis that they've ever had," he said, "but they don't support it like they used to."

He hopes the new efforts will give young musicians in the area greater appreciation for the blues. "When I do go out, they're getting away from the blues. It kills my spirit to hear them play something that won't amount to anything."
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